I had a disconcerting moment early in my reading of Spies of the Balkans. “‘The Nazis,'” says a character, “‘are vicious and criminal but, thank God, they are also venal. The ideology, for many of them, is only skin-deep — they like power, and they love money.'” Oh, darn, I thought, I’ve already read this one. But I was pretty sure I’d remember an Alan Furst novel set in Greece. And Book Group of One only lists The Spies of Warsaw so evidently this was a first reading. All became clear when I met our hero’s dog Melissa, a massive, faithful sheepdog from the Greek mountains. I would have remembered her.
Not so much Costas Zannis, the protagonist du jour. They tend to be pretty interchangeable in Furst’s books. This time he’s a kind of super-policeman, with a vague role handling sensitive cases in Salonika, Greece. That’s contemporary Thessaloniki, in north-eastern Greece, surrounded by contemporary Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. So Costas’ world is cosmopolitan. He has business contacts in Turkey and on the European continent, many of which involve handling large amounts of cash. He ends up — because he’s an honorable kind of guy, and because a woman he has a crush on asks him to do it — helping get Jews into neutral Turkey. Naturally this puts him in disfavor with the Nazis, who, at the end of the book, are bombing Salonika.
If I were looking for an unfamiliar experience I could have read many other books but Spies of the Balkans is reliably an Alan Furst product, full of atmosphere and ruefully courageous characters and a few Nazi monsters. It’s written with Furst’s trademark elegance and eye for detail, as when Costas is lunching with a Turkish contact whom he doesn’t entirely trust.
Madame Urglu smiled. “Such finesse,” she said. “Our Teutonic friends.” She retrieved a mussel from her stew, open perhaps a third of the way, stared at it for a moment, then set it beside her bowl. “But at least they’re not in Greece.”
I liked that delicate connection between the Germans and rotten shellfish, packaged into a moment that puts the reader at the table. In the end, there was enough novelty in Spies of the Balkans to keep me entertained. And I’d really like to see the dog reappear in the next book.